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Malheur County fights massive wilderness designation

State Rep. Walden and 13 county courts have registered opposition to proposal.

By Sean Ellis

Blue Mountain Eagle and Capital Press

Published on October 27, 2015 3:58PM

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Grant County commissioners have added their letter – along with State Representative Greg Walden and county courts from 13 other Oregon counties – protesting the move by the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) to carve off 2.5 million acres of Malhuer County as a wilderness area. That area, Walden said, is “larger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.”

The county encompasses 6.5 million acres.

The Owyhee Canyonlands Conservation Proposal would set aside both lands and hundreds of miles of wild and scenic rivers in a county that already has 4.5 million acres (73 percent of the land in the county) under federal management.

Grant County Commissioners plan to attend a town hall meeting Thursday at the Adrian High School gym. The commissioners are looking to pass a resolution later if needed.

Malheur County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Linda Rowe, who opposes the monument proposal, said that 2.5 million acres would equal 43 percent of the county. Once federal lands are converted to special use lands, such as National Monument, Wilderness Area, National Conservation Area, they permanently lose multiple-use provisions – including grazing rights.

Malhuer County is Oregon’s No. 1 cattle producing county. According to Oregon State University, agriculture generates over $370 million annually in the county, of which $134 million comes from cattle.

According to Sergio Arispe, a livestock and rangeland agent at Oregon State University’s Malheur County Extension office, locking up that much land would eliminate about 33 percent of the county’s total grazing land.

If the county’s economically vital cattle industry was devastated by such a conversion, a lot of hay, corn and other grains wouldn’t be grown here (either), Rowe said.

Malheur County Cattlemen’s Association President Chris Christensen was blunt: a monument designation “would destroy the community and the business of agriculture as it’s being done in this area right now,” Christensen said. “If this thing comes to pass, it would have a devastating effect on the ranching community and agriculture in Malheur County. Anybody involved in agriculture in Malheur County isn’t going to be in favor of this thing.”

Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), which is leading the monument effort, says the proposal would “allow working farms and ranches to continue to operate.”

But Jordan Valley rancher Bob Skinner, former president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said area residents believe the opposite would happen.

“There are cattle everywhere out there,” Skinner said. “If you take cattle out of (this) economy, you have decimated the economy. It would change our way of life. Not only farmers and ranchers, but everybody around here is up in arms about it.”

ONDA and other regional and national conservation groups and businesses are gathering signatures to back their effort. According to ONDA’s web site, “a variety of legislative and administrative options (are) being considered to permanently protect this place.”

According to a news release from Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, it is anticipated the groups are planning to ask President Barack Obama to use his power under the Antiquities Act to designate the land as a national monument, wilderness area or national conservation area.

Wallowa County Commissioners unanimously approved resolution in opposition to the proposal in September, joining Lake, Marion, Grant, Lincoln, Wheeler, Columbia, Harney, Deschutes, Tillamook, Baker, Union, Linn and Yamhill counties in opposition.

The Malheur County Court had already spent two years developing an alternative Wilderness Area in the southern part of Malheur County consisting of 45,414 acres. Affected ranchers and the Malheur County Court endorsed that proposal.


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